AUGUSTA, Maine — The public employee unions that played a major role in bankrolling political action committee efforts during the 2012 campaign season would essentially be barred from participating in future campaigns under a measure being proposed by a Republican lawmaker.
Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, is submitting a bill that would prohibit unions like the Maine State Employees’ Association and the Maine Education Association from contributing to candidates for state office. The measure would also bar such unions from backing outside campaigns that support or oppose political candidates.
Johnson said he’s proposing the bill in an effort to prevent conflicts of interest created when public employee unions contribute to the campaigns of lawmakers who then vote on budget measures that directly impact public employees.
“I think it’s a clear conflict of interest,” he said.
Johnson’s measure, LD 110, comes after a campaign season in which state legislative races were dominated by outside groups that spent more than $3.5 million to influence them, setting a state record for outside spending. Public sector unions, including the Maine Education Association and the Maine State Employees’ Association, contributed significantly to those efforts throughout the campaign season, which ended with Democrats recapturing legislative majorities in both the House and Senate.
Johnson said his proposal isn’t a direct outgrowth of the 2012 campaign season. He’s been thinking about proposing the measure for several years, he said.
The Maine Education Association, which represents most of Maine’s teachers, contributed more than $180,000 in cash and in-kind support to an array of political action committees that supported mostly Democratic candidates in 2012, according to data from the Maine Ethics Commission. The union also contributed directly to a handful of mostly Democratic candidates.
The Maine State Employees’ Association spent nearly $250,000 on similar causes during the last election cycle, according to the ethics commission.
Unions contributed heavily to one political action committee, the Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class, that spent nearly $760,000 supporting Democrats in a handful of key legislative races. The committee spent heavily in the Bangor-area state Senate contest between Democrat Geoffrey Gratwick and Republican Nichi Farnham that became the most expensive legislative race in the state.
The Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class became the third-largest outside spender in Maine legislative races during the 2012 campaign, according to the Maine Ethics Commission.
Johnson conceded the chances of his measure passing are slim. “I suspect it will have a difficult time getting through,” he said.
Conflicts of interest could also come up when businesses and other entities contribute to political campaigns, then benefit from particular legislation, Johnson said. But, “I think it’s more direct with public employees,” he said.
Representatives of the Maine Education Association and the Maine State Employees’ Association said Thursday that Johnson’s bill would clearly violate their constitutional rights.
“We’re disappointed that, of all the pressing issues facing our state today, Rep. Johnson would put in a bill that would take away First Amendment rights,” said Mary Anne Turowski, political and legislative director for the Maine State Employees’ Association. “We’re confident the bill will fail.”
Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said Johnson’s bill goes against the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that equates campaign donations with free speech and prohibits government restrictions on independent political expenditures from corporations and unions.
“Johnson’s bill also only attempts to eliminate union expenditures while continuing to allow unfettered corporate expenditures,” Kilby-Chesley said in a written statement.
House members Thursday referred the measure to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which hasn’t yet scheduled a public hearing.